Home » First PersonSpring 2009

Driving Dreams

by Robert “Bob” Boniface, BA’87 No Comment

I had almost forgotten Furman Hall. Almost. And I had almost forgotten the painful experience of earning a D in Econ 100 in that very building. As a Vanderbilt freshman 26 years ago, I hated Furman Hall. Yet there I was, walking past Furman to go speak to undergraduates about my career since graduation.

As a student, I was the poster child for mediocrity. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, but it didn’t matter much at the time. As I saw it, my poor grade point average would likely prevent me from doing it anyway. 

One thing I was good at was daydreaming—I had always been a creative person. I searched out creative outlets on campus such as WRVU, where I hosted a radio show for a few semesters. I was also a hopeless car enthusiast. Much of my creative output appeared as sketches of cars on classroom desks or in the margins of my Econ notebook.

boniface

As I progressed through the College of Arts and Science, I figured out the whole college thing. My grades improved, and I graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in business administration. I felt that a good, well-rounded liberal arts degree from Vanderbilt might open doors my otherwise lackluster GPA could not. I moved to Boston where I landed an entry-level position in a mutual funds company. I loved Boston, but this was not a step toward a satisfying career.

Still, I could afford to buy a few things. One of my first purchases was a drafting table so that I could pursue sketching. That was when I finally figured out what I wanted to do … and it had nothing to do with mutual funds. 

I wanted to be a car designer. It took me six months to assemble a portfolio of original automotive designs to send to Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS), one of the world’s premier industrial design schools. To my surprise, I was accepted.

Since I had never taken an art class, CCS was a unique experience for me. It was an absolute pressure cooker. My freshman class had 75 students who would compete for 20 transportation design positions available for sophomore year. Eventually, only six got jobs with automobile manufacturers. 

My Vanderbilt degree provided opportunities that I could not have imagined as an undergrad—it opened doors, made me stand out from the crowd, and gave me the tools to compete
in design school and corporate America.

After my second year, I was hired as a design intern with ASC Inc., the industry leader in convertible top and sunroof design and noted builder of specialty vehicles and concept cars. There I was exposed to manufacturing techniques and experienced how a real design studio worked. Combined with my Vanderbilt degree, this gave me a critical advantage over my classmates as we entered our third year, when auto manufacturers begin to scout the latest wave of car designers.

In 1992 Chrysler was the hottest design studio in the industry. The automaker had introduced a series of fantastic concept cars beginning with the Dodge Viper, and the production lineup on the horizon was incredibly fresh. I was fortunate to be picked up by Chrysler as a summer intern. Because I already had a bachelor’s from Vanderbilt, I was offered a full-time position at the end of the internship. I accepted it and worked with CCS to complete my design degree at night.

I was now competing with some of the finest automotive designers in the world—and the competition was stiff. All designers want their designs to be chosen for production, but many spend entire careers designing little more than door handles or wheels. In late 1993, I worked on my first production car, the 1998 Dodge Intrepid. I also worked on the Dodge Intrepid ESX concept vehicle (car talk for prototype). The ESX was a diesel-electric hybrid developed but never produced in conjunction with the government-sponsored Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. It was engineered to deliver fuel economy of 80 miles per gallon. 

In 1997 I became lead designer for the 2002 Jeep Liberty. A year later, I received the Automotive Hall of Fame’s prestigious Young Leadership and Excellence Award. During this time I was promoted to manager, and later, chief of Chrysler’s Advanced Product Design Studio, the birthplace of all Chrysler’s future projects. Two notable initiatives to come out of our studio were the rear-wheel drive Chrysler 300C and the industry’s first minivan Sto-N-Go seating system. I loved working at Chrysler, but by 2003, I felt at odds with the company’s design direction. General Motors offered me a position as director of advanced design, so in January 2004, I joined GM.

The size of General Motors and its global product range were remarkable. I was immediately thrown into the deep end and tasked with designing the GM Sequel, a concept vehicle powered by fuel cells. Fuel-cell vehicles are essentially electric cars that use hydrogen to create electricity for propulsion. The project was a success and became the first vehicle to demonstrate a driving range of 300 miles with zero emissions. Our studio was also charged with bringing the Camaro back to life. As a car enthusiast, I consider developing the new Camaro one of the highlights of my career. (Fellow Vanderbilt graduate Mark Reuss, BE’86, also worked on the Camaro project.)

Proposed production version, Chevrolet Volt, 2011

Proposed production version, Chevrolet Volt, 2011

Three years ago, I began design on what could very well be one of the most important vehicles in General Motors’ history, the Chevrolet Volt. Unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January 2007, the Volt concept was the hit of the event. The Volt has a sports car stance and a groundbreaking electric powertrain, which allows drivers to travel up to 40 miles on a single electric charge. If driven beyond 40 miles, the Volt also has a small onboard gas engine that continually generates electricity and extends the range by several hundred miles. The Volt is to go on sale in late 2010.

Walking around the Vanderbilt campus recently gave me time to reflect upon the years since graduation. My Vanderbilt degree provided opportunities that I could not have imagined as an undergrad—it opened doors, made me stand out from the crowd, and gave me the tools to compete in design school and corporate America. I use it when I manage a team of designers and engineers, oversee budgets and integrate scientific principles in my designs. My background in psychology helps me understand why consumers love their cars—and how to incorporate that knowledge into designing cars they’ll love. I know now that my liberal arts education wasn’t about a GPA.

Now I even like Furman Hall.

photo credit: ©GM Corporation

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